Powerful imperatives to redraw the cultural map

April 6, 2007

John Gilmore argues it is time to end the marginalisation a subject that is part of the history of everyone in Britain.

My 11-year-old has twice studied the career of Mary Seacole at primary school. But no other aspect of black British history has featured in her curriculum. It is an omission that is symptomatic of wider problems affecting education and society.

The most striking aspect of the considerable media prominence given to the commemoration of the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 is the way things long taken for granted among academics are now brought forth as if they were startling revelations. For example, the suggestion that a major part of Britain's wealth in the 18th century was founded on the African slave trade and Caribbean slavery was first put forward by Eric Williams, the Trinidadian scholar, in his Oxford DPhil thesis in 1938. It formed the basis of his influential book Capitalism and Slavery . Yet it is clearly still news to many people in Britain.

There are two issues here. One is the marginalisation of what are seen as specifically black subjects. A Centre for Caribbean Studies, for example, was established at Warwick University in 1984, and Caribbean studies are now taught at a number of other British universities, leading to a significant output of research and academic publications. Yet overall numbers of students remain low. I wonder just how much of an impact there has been on public perceptions.

For many people, the Caribbean is simply a holiday destination, not a region that played a significant role in this country's industrial development or in the social and cultural changes since the Second World War. In literature, the work of some black writers has attained popular success. Nevertheless, where university teaching is concerned, these writers seem more likely to turn up in courses on black British writing or postcolonial literature than in mainstream courses on modern British writing.

This is not a criticism of those who work in such areas but meant to draw attention to the second issue: the emphasis on teaching and research that brings immediately visible and quantifiable benefits on departmental strategies that focus on creating better research assessment exercise profiles and on publishing only in prestigious journals. This has a detrimental effect on "minority" subjects and those who engage in those fields.

At the same time, "minority" subjects are likely to remain as such so long as universities continue to treat work intended to disseminate the results of academic research to a wider public - such as writing school textbooks and contributing to reference works and non-academic periodicals - as secondary to some perceived higher purpose. Academics working in established areas do not have to campaign to convince others of the importance of their subjects. Those who wish to change the cultural map do.

Yet what is arguably the most influential book on black British history in the past 25 years has been Staying Power (1984) by Peter Fryer - a journalist not an academic.

My own research includes the life of the 18th-century Jamaican poet Francis Williams, known to many as the black man in a large white wig and an embroidered coat in a portrait in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Only by spending considerable time discovering just how important Latin verse was in 18th-century British culture could I come to a better appreciation of how his talents as a writer of Latin verse made him an important symbolic figure in the period's debates about race and slavery. I have published a straightforward academic piece about him. But I have also written about him for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and in a school textbook for the Caribbean market and made him the subject of talks to non-specialist audiences.

Because I feel that research and popular writing are both parts of an academic job, and because I feel that black British history is part of the history of everyone in Britain, I feel it is important that it should be better known that black history in the 18th and 19th centuries is not solely about enslavement, but also about endurance and resistance. It was about black people such as Williams, who was a scholar, a gentleman and a member of Lincoln's Inn.

Before my daughter leaves secondary school, I would like her to be able to find more of a black presence in her textbooks than the solitary figure of Seacole. But this will not happen of its own accord. My colleagues and I in academe need to make it happen.

John Gilmore is an associate professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies at Warwick University. He is one of the general editors of The Oxford Companion to Black British History , Oxford University Press, £30.

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